On Sept. 9, 1990, in the rural backwoods of Zwedru, Liberia, 15-year-old Joseph Jarbah followed in the blood-speckled footsteps of his mother as she slipped her way across the border. Starved and exhausted, the duo caught glimpses of the faces of friends and neighbors as they fled the wreckage of their home country.
Nearly 14 years later, in the bustling hub of the SeaTac International Airport, Jarbah followed in the swift footsteps of his host parents Don and JoAnn Peter as they maneuvered their way between the hordes of travelers.
Confused and frightened, he remembered his family’s escape into the Ivory Coast and the 15 years he spent struggling to survive as a refugee.
During Liberia’s 14-year civil war, Jarbah promised God that if he escaped his refugee camp and made it into the U.S., he would start an organization for the refugee children of Liberia.
Now, as a 38-year-old freshman at Seattle Pacific studying global development, Jarbah is the founder and president of Children’s Welfare International, a 5-year-old organization working to break the cycle of child violence and poverty in Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
“Being a refugee is a hell of its own,” Jarbah said. “People kick you, spit on you.”
“I want to use my story to put an end to that,” he said.
How it started
When the civil war broke out, Jarbah’s family was living in Grand Gedeh, a part of the country native to the indigenous Krahn tribe. Jarbah’s father, Harry Jarbah, supported the family by working for the then-president, Samuel K. Doe, also a Krahn native.
Also working for Doe at the time was a Liberian politician named
Charles Taylor who, after being accused of embezzlement, left Doe’s government and assembled a group of rebels in the nearby Ivory Coast.
In December of 1989, Taylor and his rebels invaded Nimba County, just north of Grand Gedeh. Anyone who was a part of the Krahn tribe was to be taken prisoner.
In September of 1990, the rebels captured Doe during a peace conference, cutting off his ears before eventually executing him on videotape.
Jarbah said that within minutes, the British Broadcasting Corporation had announced Doe’s death and warned members of the Khran tribe to leave the country immediately.
Jarbah’s family left as soon as they heard the announcement, following other refugees to camps in the Ivory Coast.
While fleeing, Jarbah’s father was shot by rebels shooting into the trees. Jarbah and his younger sister, Evelyn, watched as their father’s blood pooled at their feet.
“My dad was a marked man,” Jarbah said. “But he should not have died that way.”
“He should be with me here today,” he said.
After three days of walking through backwoods, Jarbah and his family made it into the border town of Blolequin, Ivory Coast. Jarbah and his sister were not allowed to attend Ivory Coast schools until the United Nations refugee agency instituted an immersion program four years later. Jarbah become the sole provider for his family, wandering the streets and offering to carry things around for people.
Eventually, Jarbah was able to finish high school after he relocated to another refugee camp in the city of Guiglo.
During his time in Guiglo, Jarbah was reunited with Florence Gaye, a woman he had known from his Liberian hometown of Zwedru. By 2001, Jarbah and Gaye were married with 4 kids.
In 1999, Jarbah was sent back to his Liberian hometown of Zwedru after being hired by the International Catholic Child Bureau, an organization working for the safety of children in refugee camps.
While he was there, the camp conducted a census of all refugees present. Those counted in the census were allowed to enter into the U.S under an agreement reached by the United Nations.
In the States
On Jan. 15, 2004, Jarbah entered into the United States and was greeted by Don and JoAnn Peter, his host family for the next two weeks.
Don, an associate engineering professor at SPU, says he and his wife became aware of a need for refugee host families after a World Relief representative came to speak at Midway Community Covenant Church.
“[World Relief] told us that we were only committed for the two weeks,” Don said.
“But my wife and I decided from the get-go we were in this for the long haul.”
In addition to helping Jarbah get an apartment and a job, Don and JoAnn helped Jarbah apply to move his family into the U.S.
“It took over two years for them to get here,” Don said. “It was a messy process.”
Don went on to explain how in the eyes of the U.S. immigration service, Jarbah and his wife weren’t married because he didn’t have a marriage license. Without any official documentation, Jarbah had to provide a DNA test that proved that he was his children’s father.
“Joseph is an extremely resourceful man,” Don said. “He never stopped hoping and praying.”
“It’s got him to where he is today,” Don said.
Helping those back home
While working through the immigration process, Jarbah was also working on his organization, Children’s Welfare International.
“I started it all from a $1,000 refund on my taxes,” Jarbah said. “From there, I just dove right in.”
In less than six months, Jarbah managed to get a donation from United Methodist Church for a paid six-month lease on a center in Marubia, Liberia, a $100-a-month stipend for six months and an additional $600 up front for start-up fees.
“One of the first things he asked me to help him with was getting an email address,” Don said. “He started negotiating things before I even knew why he was so intent on it.”
Currently, CWI is running two centers in Liberia completely off of donations. Last year, the organization placed a record 150 refugee children in schools. Jarbah expects that number to decrease in the coming years, however, due to a drop off in donations.
“Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to expand into more rural areas of Liberia and into the [Democratic Republic of the Congo],” Jarbah said.
In addition to taking classes at SPU and managing CWI, Jarbah works part-time as a custodian at Kent Meridian High School. He intends to graduate and move back to Liberia after he graduates to grow his organization.
Jarbah will also be proposing a new club to ASSP later this year that would connect students to orphans and poverty-stricken kids in Liberia. The club, called “Be The Voice,” would fundraise and collect volunteers to go to Liberia and help it grow.
“I don’t know what the future holds for my organization as a whole,” Jarbah said. “But my story can make a difference.”
“God has a plan for me and a plan for Liberia,” he said.